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Three Sluggers in Bittersweet Doubleheader

HOWARD ROSENBERG / TELEVISION

April 27, 2001|HOWARD ROSENBERG

The only music I make . . . is with my bat.

--Roy Hobbs in "The Natural" by Bernard Malamud

*

Baseball is again in the air, with today's kadzillionaire players about to briefly share TV time with a few of their famous predecessors.

As HBO prepares to show "61*"--its very watchable movie about Roger Maris' tortuous brush with baseball greatness alongside Mickey Mantle--and Cinemax its winning documentary on slugger supreme Hank Greenberg, here is what many in Mudville are aching to know.

The best nonfiction sports film ever made? Gloves down, it was "Raging Bull," Martin Scorsese's bruising character study of boxer Jake LaMotta, played brilliantly by a bulked-up Robert De Niro.

Surely the most amusing was HBO's part-fantasized "Don King: Only in America," with Ving Rhames at once venomous and hair-raisingly funny while vamping it up as ruthless boxing promoter Don King.

Among the worst sports movies was "The Babe Ruth Story," featuring wee William Bendix in a largely fantasized 1948 account of the swaggering, high-living biggest of the boppers. Ruth swung bats larger than Bendix.

ABC's recent "When Billie Beat Bobby" is near the bottom too, through no fault of lead actors Holly Hunter and Ron Silver, but because it inflated Billie Jean King's tennis win over smug Bobby Riggs into the broad, influential social statement that it wasn't.

Although King's years of aggressive lobbying on behalf of women's tennis did wonders for that branch of the sport, her ballyhooed duel with Riggs had virtually no impact on the wider, deeper women's movement. In no way did beating him recast King as a breakthrough feminist in anyone's eyes. The match was a tailored-for-TV event, an aging, washed-up, former male champion getting just comeuppance from an elite female player at the top of her game. Period. ABC blew it far out of proportion then just as it did in its frothy movie, in both cases much of the media cooperating by falling for the hype.

How will they respond to "61 *," a very nice, though not probing film that follows the sizzling 1961 slugging duel between New York Yankees Mantle and Maris en route to the latter struggling painfully past Ruth's seemingly unbreakable record of 60 home runs in a season?

It arrives Saturday, preceding Sunday's Cinemax documentary on earlier baseball great Greenberg, who came within three long balls himself of breaking the homer record when he played for the Detroit Tigers in 1938.

In some ways the two accounts coincide, even though Greenberg was crowning his career as baseball's first $100,000-a-year player decades before the Mantle-Maris home run derby turned heads. Just as hatred of Maris crescendoed when it appeared he might pass Ruth--his sin was being boring, a new Yankee and no superstar--so did Greenberg reportedly face added wrath, for being Jewish, the year he hit out 58.

It appeared many baseball zealots had a distinct profile in mind for anyone daring to surpass the game's most revered player, as African American Hank Aaron later would learn when encountering redneck resistance to his breaking Ruth's long-standing career home run record.

That minefield had been crossed when two contemporary sluggers began blasting gopher balls by the dozens, for it was not Zeusian Ruth but human-scale Maris in the cross hairs when Mark McGwire of the St. Louis Cardinals hit 70 homers and Sammy Sosa of the Chicago Cubs 66 in 1998.

As for "61*"? Featured here are Barry Pepper as Maris and Thomas Jane as Mantle, actors as persuasive on the field as off. No sissy swings or klutzy throws to laugh at here, thanks to tutoring by former major leaguer Reggie Smith. And writer Hank Steinberg and director Billy Crystal (as fanatical about baseball and his Yankees as about comedy) are not as worshipful as you might expect when depicting baseball's oddest of couplings pretty much the old-fashioned way.

Center fielder Mantle was a great player known for abusing his body through heavy boozing and fast living, the strait-laced Maris a very good player who had worthy years with Cleveland and Kansas City before being traded to the Yankees. But Maris was truly great only once, when he and Mantle spent much of 1961 launching home runs as if each were swinging Roy Hobbs' magical bat, Wonderboy.

As their personal race heats up here, so does pressure on Maris from the media and fans, who issue him taunts and even death threats. At one point, Maris is loudly booed after hitting a home run in Yankee Stadium, followed by a standing ovation for Mantle merely walking to the plate. "Why does it gotta be they only have room in their hearts for one guy?" Maris asks his wife, Pat (Crystal's daughter, Jennifer Crystal Foley), who's back home. Soon Maris is buckling, smoking Camel after Camel, the stress causing him ultimately to break out in a rash and lose clumps of crew cut.

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